When the unthinkable happens, reality bends. Prime example: When a commercial flight vanishes over the ocean, you don’t just get the loss of lives and the intense suffering felt by those they leave behind. You also get mass theorizing, a collective mania experienced by everybody else. Planes, being technological marvels in an age of surveillance, aren’t supposed to literally disappear without a trace, right? Except they still can, because extremely low probabilities are still, nonetheless, possibilities. The universe remains chaotic, despite every attempt to make it knowable and controllable.
The contrails of this mania drift at the edges of Passenger List, the new Radiotopia fiction podcast that debuted last month. Six episodes deep at this writing, the series follows a college student, Kaitlin Le (The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran), as she works to figure out the truth behind the sudden disappearance of a transatlantic flight, which held her twin brother as a passenger. Rejecting the explanation given by aviation officials — bird aircraft strike hazard, more common than you would think but almost always non-consequential — Le, aided by an anonymous helper (The Fall’s Colin Morgan, via voice modulator), sets out to chase down lead after lead, working her way through an increasingly sprawling web of theories that may or may not lead her to the truth she’s so desperately looking for.
Fundamental to Passenger List, which is written and directed by John Scott Dryden (Tumanbay, LifeAfter) and Lauren Shippen (The Bright Sessions), is its structural conceit: Each episode is built around a different lead, which in turn revolves around a different person on the flight. As the series goes on, so grows the list of leads and suspects, which gets unspooled to varying levels of outlandishness. One lead trains Le’s suspicion onto the pilot, a single woman that some suspect may have been debilitatingly depressed. Another focuses her on the possibility of Ebola contracted by a middle-aged couple returning from a trip to Central Africa. Other topical bombshells, from terrorism to international crime syndicates to Russia, flutter in and out of focus at one point or another. Proceeding in this manner, the episodes collectively make up a carousel of character sketches that double as theories behind the overarching mystery, offering Dryden and Shippen ample opportunity to weave different ideas into the mix while playing up the puzzle-box element of the show’s premise.
It’s an efficient format but a complicated one. Evoking contemporary real-world air disasters — whether it’s the disappearance of MH370 or the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash, deliberately caused by a co-pilot previously assessed to be suicidal — inevitably means having to evoke vast galaxies of conspiracy theories, whose stubborn persistence in the edges of culture continues to loom over those actually affected by the tragedies to this day. At times, the show’s scripting suggests a desire to comment on, or perhaps even critique, the fantastical nature of conspiratorial thinking.
The show manages to lean into that darker side of the ledger with deftness. The leads that Le pursues aren’t just built on working theories; viewed from an objective distance, they are also clear representations of actual conspiracy theories we can detect in the real world. And so the podcast surfaces a bigger, thornier conundrum: What do we learn from emotionally rationalizing conspiratorial thinking? Which is to say: Does Le’s hurt justify her indulging of conspiracy theories?
Across its first batch of episodes, you can feel the podcast using all of these threads to say something interesting about grief, about the impulse to reject the reality of a chaotic, uncaring universe. However, there’s a haziness to the way it handles this exploration. Part of this has to do with the show’s actual episodic character sketches, some of which feel a little underbaked. But most of this, I think, has to do with the show’s commitment to genre tropes. Episodes end with cliffhangers and the promise of another lead. A midpoint revelation recontextualizes what we understand about Le’s brother, suggesting a far more fantastical story arc. Sometimes it works, other times not so much; the show’s commitment to genre pillars sometimes comes into harsh conflict with the delicate ideas it wants to tackle.
On a technical level, the podcast is a marvel. Passenger List sounds amazing. Sporting fantastic sound design and orchestration by Mark Phillips (who previously worked on Serial and Homecoming), the podcast’s world feels vivid and tangible. The series leans on the classic found-footage trope — common among genre-fiction podcasts — with much of the action playing out over phone calls, recorded conversations, archived audio, and so on. But the production refreshingly plays it fast and loose, mostly using the popular technique to establish a sense of place but breaking its adherence whenever appropriate to keep close to the performances. Even the show’s advertising gimmick is noteworthy: Ad reads are performed as in-flight announcements, doubling as a horrifying vision of our capitalist near future.
Under Dryden and Shippens’s direction, the podcast also offers solid performances. Tran is asked to do a lot, serving as the emotional anchor and scaffolding for the entire plot, but she delivers. Of particular note are the scenes between Le and her parents, marked by an organic tension that comes not just from being psychologically apart, grief-wise, but generationally as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series’ standout performance so far comes from stage legend Patti LuPone, who pops up in the fourth episode and completely takes over; her delivery gives a remarkable level of subtlety, restraint, and gravity to a character who might have otherwise been an off-beat throwaway (specifically, a psychic).
Passenger List is an exemplary fiction podcast, particularly in how it refines many of the genre’s core mechanics and takes them to the next level. It also seems deeply interested in its heavy themes. What, in the end, does this missing-plane drama really want to say about grief? We’re not sure yet, but it’s flying in the right direction.